Developing the Story of Place through Special District Design
By Matthew Petty
In 2013, I was beginning my fifth year as an Alderman. I was losing hope. I was frustrated because everything I wanted was taking so long—or getting shut down completely. I sought out Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines when we were both at a conference. I thought he could give me a secret recipe for success. Instead, he gave me unexpected advice I will never forget.
I shared my complaints and what I hoped he could teach me. I remember his answer like this: the Judge didn’t laugh but he grinned big, and told me “It takes so much time because that’s how much time it takes. It doesn’t get done if you give up.” I’m serving my 10th year as a council member now and people are starting to ask me for advice like I asked the Judge. I tell people something a little different than what the Judge told me, but my big grin is the same as his. “If you keep going, you can be the one who gets this done.”
And I like to tell stories that prove it’s true.
Fort Smith is writing one of those stories now. Anyone who still thinks Fort Smith is dying is wrong; it is alive! There is a special team that started going to work every day five years ago to focus on making Garrison Avenue and 16 surrounding blocks a better place. There weren’t many people who believed they would succeed at the beginning, but now almost everyone can feel the change.
The Fort Smith team calls themselves 64.6 Downtown. They began with a belief that the only thing holding Fort Smith back was Fort Smith itself, and they had a plan to fix it. They started with a downtown mural festival called the Unexpected—now in its fourth year.
You’d be right if you judged it a successful festival and you’d be missing the point entirely. Something changed in Fort Smith after the first Unexpected. The art was unlike anything the community had ever experienced and so everyone had an opinion, but they had a new thing in common, too. No one wanted to write off downtown Fort Smith anymore. They had their hope back.
They were ready to work even if it took years. And so they are. Claire Kolberg has been on the 64.6 Downtown team from the beginning. What she told me reminded me of the advice Judge Villines gave me five years ago, and she said it in a matter-of-fact way: “We realized no one was going to come save Fort Smith, and we can do it ourselves.”
Leaders in other communities are expressing the same thing. One of the other places I’ve seen it is North Little Rock. Leaders there have known their downtown is an asset for a long time, and in the past decade they have doubled their efforts to execute their plan for the Argenta District.
In 2015, I got to host North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith for a seminar. For two-and-a-half days, he joined seven other mayors and eight experts in fields like urban design, engineering, architecture and main street development. We worked on concepts for the Argenta Plaza in that room three years ago, and the idea wasn’t new then. Now the designs are nearly complete and the construction will start soon. Mayor Smith persevered, and when the Argenta Plaza is finished it will be one of the best public spaces in all of Arkansas.
It took a decade or longer, but neither Mayor Smith nor his predecessor would let anyone give up. They didn’t let anyone on their teams wait for someone else to do it. And it’s not just the Argenta Plaza; it’s everything being done for downtown as a whole. That’s the attitude and approach it takes.
Over and over again, I’ve been referred to Amy Whitehead’s community development program at the University of Central Arkansas, so I asked her what it takes for leaders and citizens to experience that ‘aha!’ moment. Amy has helped dozens of Arkansas communities chase their dreams for healthy downtowns and Main Streets. She told me “The first thing that needs to happen is people have to realize no one will do the work for them. Then, someone needs to feel empowered that they can step up.”
Amy’s answer rings true for me. In all the case studies of towns that are enjoying success or revitalization, the moment when things start to get better is when hope comes back. It’s because people with hope don’t give up.
It’s actually not complicated to bring hope back. It’s as simple as inviting people to share their dreams out loud. People feel a kind of permission to hope again when they know other people share their aspirations for their city. They become willing to work hard for as long as it takes because they know their personal effort won’t be wasted. Amy explained to me “In almost every community we work in, people are inspired to find out they agree with one another.”
It’s the workplan that follows that is hard and complex. Executing a downtown master plan, building an arts corridor, or even bringing back a single block on Main Street takes years and it takes teams. Leaders that blow off ideas for reasons like “they tried that a long time ago” or “this is how we’ve always done it” are undercutting their chances. They should empower citizens who are eager to make personal investments in placemaking.
The last city I will mention is Pine Bluff. With a new downtown association, brewery, blues club, theatre, library, aquatic center, parks, upcoming streetscapes, and a nothing-will-stop-us attitude, the city of Pine Bluff has decided they will give it everything they’ve got. Their dream is to be the greatest comeback story Arkansas will ever have. I believe in them, because I’ve seen that attitude before. It wins.